Q&A: How Jazz Virtuoso ELEW Puts His Mark on Rock

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The story of ELEW touches on nearly every aspect of contemporary musical culture—genre, image, authenticity and certainly the music business itself.

Born Eric Lewis into a musical family in Camden, New Jersey, the virtuoso pianist won awards as a teenager and attracted the attention of jazz luminaries like Wynton Marsalis. But at age 35, his career had flatlined and he was still a sideman. “No one was interested in getting in tune with my vision,” he says.

That’s when he happened upon, of all things, a Linkin Park record. It was the first rock record he ever owned, and it changed his career, sending him diving into the world of rock and pop and reinventing himself as a reinterpreter of pop music via solo jazz piano. He released Rockjazz Vol. 1 in 2010, which included often experimental takes on “Mr. Brightside,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Radiohead’s “Knives Out.”

Central to ELEW’s style is what he calls the “parade” tradition—that aspect of music that makes people want to sing along, dance and move, and which has been sorely lacking in the staid, hidebound world of jazz listening clubs. And while the jazz world scorned him (“they all went on a witch hunt, attacking me personally,” he says) the pop world took notice. He had an incendiary performance on America’s Got Talent, joined Dave Matthews’s Caravan tour, recorded with Lil’ Wayne and played the White House.

We caught up with ELEW last week to talk about Rockjazz Vol. 2, which comes out today (streaming after the jump). It features his takes on The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” Foo Fighters’ “MIA,” U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and the Stones’ “Satisfaction” among others.

Weeping Elvis: How do you determine the material?

ELEW: The tunes are picked based on my connection to the lyrical content, as well as how that lyrical content works with the bass lines. It’s important that the bass lines are dynamic and powerful in some way. One of the goals is to be powerfully dynamic and rocking, yet maintain the romance and the intimacy of the tone and the overall atmosphere. Which I was able to do to some degree [on the first album], but I was able to get a lot closer to it on this disc. What I wanted the audience to be able to do was cruise or sit in their homes or at work and still feel the throbbing power and the fire of the music, whether at a low volume or a high volume. Even at a low volume, it would still maintain its impact.

ELEW M.I.A. @ Randall’s Island from sacha cesana on Vimeo.

WE: What else was different about this record?

ELEW: I had an angel investor write me a check for $100,000 with no strings attached. [So there were] no money problems. So I made this record with a sense of duty and love and chivalry and honor for my audience and the genre of rockjazz. A record that spoke to the opulence of it all. It was a true labor of love. I’d be in the studio all night doing hundreds of takes.

WE: So every track we’re hearing is a recording of one single take?

ELEW:  Yes. The technique of rockjazz is very much a challenge because the types of sounds and the types of atmospheres it aspires to are [those] that have been standardized by instruments that aren’t pianos. Namely guitars and synths. Also, unlike most of the recordings that you hear, which are very, very edited,–most of that stuff is computer perfection–I do all of this in real time. Two images come to mind. One is the terminator—the human versus computer. It’s just me. It’s uncharted territory. The other is John Henry [the mythological hero who went up against a machine but died from the effort]. I’m doing by myself what others would use a machine to do.

WE: What’s your approach in arranging these well-known tunes for solo piano and giving them the same dynamism?

ELEW: The lyrics are the driving force. Its’ a bit of a karaoke type experience. Along with the singalong element, I seek to replicate the cumulative force and the poetic force of the original recording. Essentially the approach I take is one of a person who never played piano in their life. And then one day, they wake up and they can play, and they want to play “Zombie.” I want to open a certain portal. The same things when we’re engrossed in a movie happens for me when we listen to these tunes. …my audience, the consumer, can project their consciousness inside of me and feel as if they’re playing it. I’m making choices that they would make. And in that way they have a very visceral experience.

WE: When you play live do people sing along?

ELEW: In general, yes, especially if I’m really giving it to them just perfectly, they’ll sing along whether it’s a high-end political gig, or a chi-chi Hollywood gig, or a regular collegiate type gig. That’s what this music is designed to do.

WE: What are you generally listening to these days for inspiration?

ELEW: Art Tatum, just as a reference point for technical execution on the instrument. And a bit of electronica, some Calvin Harris, some LMFAO. I generally don’t listen to music much for pleasure, because I’m so engrossed in my practice. I prefer natural sounds. A lot of my time is spent in silence. But suddenly something gets my goose and I’m listening to all kinds of alternative rock and hard rock. Some hip hop.

Thanks to ELEW for speaking with us. For more information on the new disc or his live performances, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

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